Do This Simple Trick To Elevate Your Mood

What a glorious day, friends! Hope the light is finding you. For over two decades I was a professional portrait photographer. I specialized in family and children’s portraiture. One of the things that set me apart and kept me in business was an ability to put people at ease. I learned some of my best tricks from a master: Marriott Smith. Presidents and movie stars posed for him. Together, we once photographed Bill and Hillary Clinton when Bill was first running for high office. That was memorable. But there’s something else that stands out in my mind even more vividly. He taught me to make people blink.

“It gets rid of that deer in the headlights look folks tend to get when they’re in front of a camera,” he said.

I’ve learned it does more than that.  A blink re-focuses our attention. It re-sets our brains. Science estimates that we blink far more often than we need to to keep our eyes lubricated. We blink 1,200 times per hour or 28,800 times per day. Your brain knows what it’s doing when it engages your occipital lobes. Try it if you don’t believe me. Blink right now. On purpose. Longer than you might. And with meaning.

It’s like a windshield wiper swipe over whatever you’re fixed on at the moment. Your problems don’t vanish, but your view becomes clearer. You’re able to think cleaner.

Yesterday was a brutal day for me. I was in a rare, dark mood. Maybe it was the weather. Last week temps here hit above 80 degrees. Yesterday brought a blizzard. Maybe it’s because I’m editing a novel that is so real to me the characters’ problems weigh me down. Or maybe it’s just life. You know. It delivers “those days” for no apparent reason.

My friend, Karla, picked me up around 7 p.m. She let me gripe for a good ten minutes before she pulled into a parking lot with THIS view in front of us. I blinked and suddenly everything changed. Darkness lifted. The neurotransmitters in my brain altered their distribution. I got out and snapped this photo with my phone, and instead of grumpy, I became grateful. I became aware that a return to winter can be a majestic thing. And whatever troubles had seemed so big, were dwarfed when confronted with genuine grandeur.

So, next time you’re feeling gloomy, anxious, or frustrated, try closing your eyes and letting the darkness come. Then open your eyes to welcome the light back. It works when you’re tired. It works in the middle of an argument. It’s a simple readjustment, but I promise that it works—all in the blink of an eye.

What Your Inner Voice Has To Say

One night last year darkness refused to fall. I was on a bucket list adventure to Alaska and it was my first experience with daylight at midnight. Water sparkled like it was made of melted blue diamonds. That’s our forty-ninth state for you—brush-stroked a bazillion shades of blue. We’d been driving around, me with my camera clicking at wonder after wonder. But now every part of me was exhausted. I nestled the camera in my lap, laid my head back and shut my eyes for the duration of the ride back to camp.

Sometime later a voice inside my head commanded, “Open your eyes and see!”

I opened my eyes and saw only the road in front of us.

“Look and see!” the voice insisted.

I looked and saw a whale breaching right next to our little truck. A wonder indeed, one I would have missed if I’d ignored my internal instructor like I so often had.

Yes, I’ve heard voices. That doesn’t make me crazy; it makes me human.  Gandhi, who forged India’s independence from Britain through non-violence, relied on an inner voice for guidance. Carl Jung received advice from a source he deemed “neurosis,” yet his unseen guardian seemed “almost physically real” someone he referred to as a “guru.” You can call them auditory hallucinations, but they aren’t. Joan of Arc, Beethoven, William Blake, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Charles Dickens, are just a few people who’ve admitted to experiencing voices. We’re not always talking about audible voices either. We’re talking nudges, sensations, melodies to musicians, equations to scientists, and clarity to the confused. We’re talking inspiration from a source that isn’t seen.

Bottom line: We all came equipped with an internal gauge to guide and inspire us. Inspiration is ours when we tap into the Source that often manifests through voices. The more we recognize the various voices that speak to us, the more likely we are to stay safe, learn more, recall with keener accuracy and be inspired. In research for my brain book I talked with people who’ve been awakened at night by voices guiding them, kept safe from harm by voices urging them to move out of harm’s way, or informed by unseen sources of information they could have not have known.

I’ve learned that there are both benevolent and malevolent voices. The ones that remind us of our past mistakes and make us doubt ourselves are usually the shrillest and loudest. Unfortunately, they get the lion’s share of attention. Maybe the best piece of advice I’ve come across is this: Listen to the kindest, softest voice you hear because that’s the one you can trust.

For most of my life I’ve entertained voices I haven’t even been aware of—yet I’ve believed them, especially when they’ve been critical. But I’m learning to recognize and attend to the circus that goes on inside my own head. Now I want to pay attention to the whispers Ralph Waldo Emerson declared “affirmations of the soul.”

This one little practice has changed my life, and I want that experience for you, too. Heeding your inner voice might not reward you with a breaching whale, but I promise you a whale of an opportunity if you’ll silence all the voices that tell you who you are not, and learn to listen to the voice that reminds you who you really are. It’s the one that will bring peace, security, and love. So my wish for you today is that you’ll clear out the clutter in your own mind and trust your truest voice—your own.

The Blessed Life of the Un-Damned

The photo is of my son, Collin, flying over Lake Powell, doing something he’d never done. I hope you can feel the joy and excitement and life in this shot and that those emotions never leave you.

When I was a girl I tagged behind my grandpa as he irrigated a budding grain field. To my horror, he mercilessly whacked at weeds that I thought were pretty. He flung rocks out of furrows like they were mortal enemies. I watched him in wonder as he wielded his shovel. Then he stopped and explained to me how precious irrigation water had to reach all the way to the end of every furrow in order to nourish every little spout of grain. If not, the crop would wither beneath the sun’s scorch.

He then knelt and showed me how a single weed or rock “damned” the flow of life-giving water.

That’s when I realized that damned literally means: to be stopped from progressing.

Being damned is the worst feeling in my world. It’s harsher than fear or even rejection. And here’s the kicker I’ve discovered—damnation is self-inflicted. God doesn’t damn me. Satan doesn’t damn me. You don’t damn me. I do that all by myself. I do it by accepting life’s roadblocks as something that I can’t get over or go around. I do it by embracing my doubts as truths. I do it when I let fear freeze me in my tracks. I do it by staying stuck in my own muck.

Trust me, I’m not saying life doesn’t stop us. Disappointments bludgeon us. Trials thwart us. Health problems hobble us. I’ve been showered with my share, but I’m weary from the weight of damnation. I’m tired of feeling like I’m not progressing. I want to move forward and I want that for any of you who feel like you’ve been stuck too. So, here’s what I’ve learned in this journey:

  • Give yourself credit for all you’ve accomplished. You’re still breathing. Consider all the things you’ve learned in the past year. Reflect on the relationships you’ve built and the ones you’ve repaired. Think of the service you’ve rendered. The places you’ve explored. The work you’ve accomplished. Don’t discount your desires to do better. They matter. Nothing wrong with patting yourself on the back hard enough to jolt you into giving yourself credit where credit is due. Stop demeaning your own accomplishments!
  • Quit comparing yourself to anyone else. They haven’t lived your life. They don’t dwell in your physical body. Don’t let unforgiveness, or resentment or envy corrode your own happiness when you see that your Facebook friend just danced with penguins in Antarctica. It doesn’t matter that someone else got a promotion or the graduate degree that you so desperately want. Focus first on you. Move toward your goals and don’t get distracted by someone else’s success. When we learn to celebrate the accomplishments of others (especially those we don’t believe deserve all the good things that come their way) life has a way of paving the path for our own successes. What’s the saying? Success isn’t the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success!
  • Don’t you dare give up. Excuses are like feet: we all have ‘em and they all stink! Lack of resources like time, health, money are only excuses. People get what they prioritize. Don’t worry about pace as much as progress. As long as you’re moving in the right direction, you’ll get there. Love yourself along the way and savor the experiences along the journey. Learn to look for the good in every situation. Your end goal or destination isn’t nearly as important as the person you become along the route to get there.

I ramble when I get excited. I’m excited. I’m releasing myself. Forgiving myself. Finally moving forward as a risk-taker and an opportunity-maker. There’s wonder in not knowing how my best-laid plans will either come to fruition or come apart. That’s life, but staying stuck isn’t living, is it? So let’s get out there, by small steps or giant leaps, into a world I believe we agreed to enter to experience everything we possibly can cram into a lifetime. The love. The beauty. The truth. The faith. The mysteries. The stories. Oh, the stories! And stories, dear friends, are not cobbled with words as much as they are with freedom. Freedom to choose, to move, to feel, to learn and to grow. So let’s remove the weeds and rocks and clods that clog us from receiving our allotment of life. Let’s un-damn ourselves and help each other to be about the business of fully living!

The Odds of Being Killed by a Duck

It’s 2:30 a.m. and I am wandering through cyberspace reading indisputable facts like: You’re more likely to be killed by a donkey than in a plane crash. WHAT? No follow up. Now I’m awake wondering how a donkey might do it. A stealth kick to the head gets my vote. All this doesn’t lead to nowhere. It leads me to back to an encounter I had with a duck earlier in the day. I was dozing in the sunshine at a local park when I opened my eyes to this image.

It is not natural for a duck to approach a slumbering human being with such audacity. But the duck wasn’t alone. He came with an army of friends, all quaking, all expecting me to have something in the way of food to offer them. Which I didn’t.

They chased my heels part way home, hissing and snapping that I had shown up, given them hope, and had dared to leave without as much as tossing a stale slice of bread. Now I’m remembering another time something similar happened. I was in a third world country offering aid following a natural disaster. When we ran out of food and medicine the people were still hurting. They saw our white foreign faces and had conditioned expectations. Their hands went out. Their voices rose. And when we explained that we were empty…a near riot ensued. Our car got tipped. Machetes came out. There was a lot of yelling and some shoving and groping and helplessness on all sides.

It’s human nature to want to help the hurting and the hungry. Something innate in every child wants to feed a quaking duck. But people are meant to help themselves and ducks are intended to forage for their own food.

So now I’m awake wondering where the invisible line is…the one that crosses into enablement and conditions people and animals to expect handouts and to fume when hands are empty. Now I’m reliving experiences that still hurt because I’m short on resources and ability to meet needs that deserved to be met. And I’m wondering what I wonder as a mother, a friend and a human being…When does my helping do more harm than good?

Fellow writer Erol Ozan explained it much better than I’m doing: “Help someone, you earn a friend. Help someone too much, you make an enemy.”

Does that make as much sense to you as it does to me? There has to be a balance between heart and head, right? Our help is meant to strengthen, not weaken, so finding that line is paramount. But the blasted thing keeps moving!

In the meantime, I’m awake looking up the odds of being killed by an angry duck. I can’t find any stats, but I have run across a post listing animals that are more likely to kill me than ducks. Ants (I’ve been attacked TWICE by fire ants). Bees (my father was deathly allergic to bees). Horses and cows (I’ve been kicked by both). Deer (I’ve been in a car that hit a deer, and once a semi in front of me slaughtered a deer and flung the carcass onto my windshield, shattering it—a lovely experience). Snakes (My brain shuts down when I try to remember those horrors). Jellyfish (had to be rescued by a lifeguard in Santa Monica when a school attacked me).  Mosquitos (I’ve survived malaria and dengue). Hippos (yes, I’ve got a hippo encounter to tell sometime—two, in fact). Dogs and sharks complete the list. I’ve never been attacked by a shark, but I have scars from dog bites. I worked for a vet and wanted to be one oh, so many years ago).

Ducks might not be on the list of most deadly animals…but it’s now 3:19 a.m. and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is playing on a screen in my brain. That’s not all, above the rain’s pitter-pattering on my window…there’s an indisputable sound that I cannot be imagining…quack…quack…quack.

My Most Authentic Job

Creativity is great for the brain and the heart. That made me realize that my lawn looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. Dandelions and weeds everywhere—in spite of some very expensive fertilizer stuff guaranteed to kill the bad and nourish the good. Truth is, my life sorta resembles a Pollock painting. There’s nothing linear about it at the moment. I’m circling in a lot of directions, splattering, and making a work of art that some people will love and others will judge as trash.

I’m good with that. So good.

That’s because it’s finally sinking in that I’m here to paint a life that God wants. That’s it. I’m not here to judge anyone—including myself. I’m not here to rant about the unfairness of the world.  I’m here to change my world. That means I love without borders. I give without thought of getting. I can’t worry what others think of me. Odd as it seems, that’s not my concern. My concern is to live a life that serves, restores, creates, appreciates, and grows the good stuff like love, forgiveness, laughter, joy, music, art, relationships, faith and loads and loads of hope.

Unfortunately, I’ve been brutal to myself. I’ve believed the worst that others had to say about me. Living in that deadly shadow has only made me feel insignificant and unwanted. It’s made me sick and weak on the inside, tho I might appear strong on the outside. Now I realize that I don’t have stop progressing because someone doesn’t approve of me. I especially realize that the self-judgement has to stop and the self-love has to flow.

Did you read the story about the teacher who took twin apples and secretly bruised the heck out of one, then set them side by side and asked her young students to speak kindly to one and cruelly to the other? When she cut them open, the apple that had been praised and loved was whole, crisp and juicy inside. The apple that had been mocked and judged and abused was brown and mushy and injured inside. That’s what bullying does. And don’t think it’s just kids who bully.

This Easter weekend as I reflect what it means to be a true Christian, I’ll focus on resurrection of the body and the spirit. I’ll reflect on a life that teaches me how to love and how to live now, so that death has no string. I’ll use my faith and the power of God to resurrect what’s bruised and broken and even dead within me.

I’m so far from the person I want to be. I’m so sorry it’s taken this long to learn that I’m not here on Earth to paint or criticize someone else’s art, I’m only here to create my own. (So sorry for the unwanted splotches I’ve flung at your canvases, my peeps.) I’ll be here if you need to borrow a brush or paint. I’ve got a lot of indigo to spare because that’s my favorite color. The Old Testament says it’s God’s favorite color too.

In the meantime, my hope for you is that joy sneaks up on you and hugs you tight. That sunshine warms your soul from the inside out. That whatever hurts within you begins to heal. I don’t believe I’ve ever been more grateful to be alive. Just alive. So get out there and paint the life that’s in you so you can share it with the world. Trust me, we need your beauty and creativity—every brushstroke matters.

When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned

The photo is of my little Adelaide “wondering” what it would be like to jump into the Gulf of Mexico. I told her not to get wet, but she’s three and raging with curiosity. So I just stood in awe and took photos.

The etymology of the word wonder means of ultimate unknown origin. It also means to magnify or to be astonished. Have you ever wondered why your life has not gone as planned? I mean no one gets married planning to get divorced. No one drives to work planning to be broadsided by a semi. No one pencils “get cancer” into their weekly schedule.

Last week I heard a story about the Children of Israel’s plight when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and took Jews captive. What business did “God’s people” have living in a land surrounded by idols? What business did they have living so far away from their beloved temple? The Babylonian king’s strategy was brilliant…let the foreign captives live among his own, and in time they were bound to adapt the Babylonian way of living and thinking, especially the younger malleable generation. The stunned and indignant Jews just knew that God would not leave them in Babylon for any length of time. So, they prayed and planned for their imminent deliverance.

I’ve read the Old Testament a couple of times yet I never realized that these good and faithful people wanted exactly what I want out of life—to live it according to plan. MY plan. The Jews prayed that God would vindicate them and return them to their rightful land. That was their plan, but God had a different plan. He told them to be patient, that their captivity would last up to seventy years, so they should settle in, build houses, plant gardens and eat what they grew. The people, especially the older ones, knew this meant they would never return home. Imagine how they felt. (Jeremiah 29)

For a lot of us, we don’t have to imagine too strenuously. We know how it feels to have our plans come undone. We live with ongoing disappointment. Well, after Sunday’s sermon I realized that faith in our Highest Power means having faith in divine unflawed love, a force that wants us to be happy and successful. Try telling that to the woman who desperately wanted a husband and children, but remains single. Tell that to the spouse who was faithful to an unfaithful partner. Tell that to my friend whose baby, the one they waited thirteen years to have, the son they hinged all their dreams on, was born with trisomy 21, an extra copy of chromosome 21.

My own life has known a lot more dead ends than long stretches of open road. I’ve learned that it’s better to be alone than in a toxic relationship. My friend who was initially devastated to learn that her son had Down Syndrome, now celebrates the fact that the kid manufactures pure joy. He’s taken his family on a wondrous detour they never would have chosen to journey. In the process, they’ve all evolved in a way their original plan could not have facilitated.

It’s fitting that a rabbi said: Man plans and God laughs. It’s time for me to stop complaining and start trusting that when I hit a brick wall there’s an unseen reason. Maybe it’s to make God laugh, the way a parent does when a toddler tumbles, only to spring back up to cheers. He knows that every time I get back up, I’m transformed. Maybe the wall is to stop me from making a mistake, or turn me in a different direction or protect me. No matter. I’m going to rewire my brain’s rutted circuitry and see it as a plot twist in the story that’s my life. What would a story be without an unforeseen plot twist? It’d be boring and predictable. I can hardly wait to turn the next page because the Author and Finisher I’ve come to know does not do boring and predictable. He does wonder.

Making Life Simpler

It’s happening. Every day I get closer to living my ultimate dream of what I call spiritual simplicity. What it really means is I’m getting rid of “stuff” and focusing on what really matters to me…people, service, experiences and learning.

Did you realize that U.S. consumers are parents to only 3 percent of the world’s children, but we blessed American dads and moms purchase forty percent of the world’s toys? That statistic boggled my brain. What toys do kids need these days to experience a happy, creative, rewarding childhood? We took baby Nellie to the park this past weekend and all she needed was the great outdoors. She played with a stick. She found joy in the swing set, the ducks, and a dog that happened by. When the malamute attempted to steal her stick, Nellie was having none of it. She became the dog and stuck it in her mouth and dared us to wrestle it from her. Nature and her imagination. You can’t buy those two things at any toy store.

       That got me to thinking how joyous life is when we keep it simple. The happiest people I know are people who pull the car over to look at a sunset, or weep at the budding of a flower, or roll up their pants to run into the ocean waves. People who aren’t too rushed to pay attention to other people. They have time to stop and “chat” with a neighbor. People who are curious. People who bend down to speak on a child’s level. People who sing along to the radio. People who dance when the music starts. People who create. People who take God at His word.

       I’ve been reading a lot about Thoreau and his quest to “live deliberately.” We mistakenly believe he went deep into the woods to get away from the din of society. Not true. Emerson’s little piece of property where Thoreau took refuge sat on the outskirts of town.

       We don’t have to go far. We don’t have to spend much. We don’t have to cave to advertisers telling us what will make us happy. We’ve got an inner voice that speaks the truth and guides us to true happiness. The problem is we’ve also got a crowd of other voices and they all speak louder. They all have opinions about how we should live.

       Silly us.

       We’re responsible for the quality of our lives. We’re responsible for our own happiness. Tomorrow I’ll make another bag of “stuff” and donate it. That makes me happier than going to the store and bringing another bag of “stuff” into our home.

       Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe the kids should take me seriously when I tell them to pick up their “stuff.” Whatever is going on, I’m glad life is getting simpler.